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A V Meiyappa Chettiar birth centenary

The statue of late A V Meiyappa Chettiar, founder of the AVM Group of companies, will be unveiled by Tamil Nadu Chief Minister M Karunanidhi on the premises of the South Indian Film Chamber of Commerce in Chennai on July 30, 2006, to mark the commencement of the birth centenary of the doyen of the film industry.

Chamber president K C N Chandrasekhar, Meiyappa Chettiar's relatives including A V Meiyappan, and a large number of film celebrities would be present at the function.

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Born on July 28, 1907, to Avichi Chettiar and Lakshmi Achi, Meiyappan was a legend. His motto was 'Efforts Never Fail' and his life was visual proof of it.

Nattukottai Chettiars are money lenders by profession but young Meiyappan's father ran a general store called AV & Sons at Karaikudi. As a boy, he worked as an apprentice in the store. AV & Sons used to buy gramophone records in Madras and sell them in their store. On one of his buying trips, AVM decided that he should try to press his own records instead of having to buy them. This idea led to the birth of Saraswathi Stores on September 9, 1932. Later, he decided that instead of having to buy songs from other producers for his records, he should produce his own feature films.

His first venture was 'Alli Arjuna' in 1935. This was followed by 'Ratnavali' in 1936 and 'Nandakumar' in 1938. Though AVM had created history by producing the first playback song in 'Nandkumar', it was unfortunate for the young producer that all three films failed. Not swervig from his motto 'Efforts Never Fail', AVM did not lose heart. He analysed the causes for the failure of his films and set about rectifying them.

He started his own studios in 1940 and named it 'Pragathi Studios'. AVM then produced 'Bookailas' in 1941, 'Sabapathy' and 'En Manaivi' in 1942, 'Harischandra' in Kannada in 1943 and 'Sri Valli' in 1945. Once again AVM created history when in 1944 he produced India's first ever dubbed film by dubbing 'Harischandra' in Tamil. 

November 14, 1945, saw the birth of the famous AVM Studios in a rented house in Santhome, in Chennai. Meiyappan was looking for land in Kodambakkam to start his dream studios but he faced a major hurdle in the form of the Second World War as there was a shortage of electricity.

Having no other choice, AVM started the studio in his hometown Karaikudi. He rented a place in the nearby Devakottai Road, and transported the materials required for the 120 ft x 60 ft shed by train. Shooting soon commenced for the feature film 'Vedala Ulagam'.

On one of his trips to Chennai, Meiyappan saw the play 'Naam Iruvar' and decided to use the story for a film. He bought the rights of not only the play but also the national poet and freedom fighter Bharathiar's songs that he wanted for the film and started shooting 'Naam Iruvar'. This was AVM's first film and it was this milestone that popularised AVM Studios and Bharathiyar's songs among the masses. The success of this film was closely followed by 'Vedala Ulagam' and 'Rama Rajya'. 'Vedala Ulagam' had a lot of 'magic' scenes and in those days with no graphics or technology, AVM worked wonders with just a camera.

By then electricity was more freely available and in 1948 AVM bought several acres of land in Chennai to shift AVM Studios to its present location. The massive 120' x 60' shooting shed in Karaikudi was dismantled and brought to be set up again as what is now the third floor of AVM Studios. This auspicious and lucky floor is where the poojas for all AVM movies are conducted.

The first film shot in the new AVM Studios was 'Vaazhkkai' starring Vijayanthimala. This blockbuster, which was directed by Meiyappan himself, ran for 25 weeks. 'Bahaar' in Hindi and 'Jeevitham' in Telugu also starring Vijayanthimala followed. The famous movie house of AVM also produced feature films in Kannada, Bengali, Telugu and Sinhala besides Tamil.

Many AVM films have been awarded silver and gold medals; the most noteworthy being 'Hum Panchi Ek Dal Ke' which won the Prime Minister's Gold Medal in 1958 for the best children's film and 'Samsaram Athu Minsaram' which won the President's Gold Medal in 1986 under the category of mainstream award for popular and wholesome entertainment. During the last 60 years this movie house has produced not only 166 feature films but several thousand episodes of television soaps as well.

AVM Films were never merely commercial ventures - they were always thought provoking and carried a social message. The famous film 'Naam Iruvar' had a patriotic theme and created a revolution by portraying an atheist. 'Kuladeivam' produced in 1956 was about widow re-marriage and that was also a revolutionary thought. 'Naanum Oru Penn' produced in 1963 depicted the story of a dark girl who was treated as an outcast and showed how she overcame all her problems. In 1954 AVM produced 'Andha Naal' a movie without songs. 'Server Sundaram' produced in 1964 showed the importance of family planning and also inspired the ordinary man to dream big. AVM Films were always unique. Sivaji Ganesan, Kamal Haasan, T R Mahalingam, Sivakumar and many other famous actors, directors and technicians made their debut in the cine field through AVM.

Meiyappan had the unique distinction of having had five chief ministers work in his feature films.

Arignar Anna Durai wrote the story and dialogues for 'Ore Iravu'.
M Karunanidhi penned the story and dialogues for 'Parasakthi'.
MGR played the lead role in 'Anbe Vaa'.
J Jayalalithaa was the heroine in the film 'Major Chandrakanth' and in four other films.
N T Rama Rao starred in 'Jeevitham', 'Ramu' and 'Bookailash'.

Meiyappan had good ties with almost all political leaders but never got involved in politics himself. He believed that business and politics should not be mixed. A great lover of music and literature, he was the vice-president of the Kamban Kazhagam and took great interest in its activities.

AVM Saravanan said, "He was an extremely thoughtful, caring person who always said that his staff were his greatest wealth. He bought AVM Colony and gave his workers a place to live, he started Avichi High School to educate their children, he started AVM Health Centre to take care of their medical needs and he even bought them insurance. 'Do unto others as you would have done unto you' is the well-known saying and the staff of AVM have always been greatly appreciative of all that he did for them. This is reflected in the fact that even today there are third generation workers in this movie house."

"Father was a very planned, methodical person - a perfectionist. It was quality he paid attention to, not quantity or cost. He would not release any film unless he himself was satisfied with it. Production, direction, editing, publicity, distribution and exhibition were all done by him. Songs in AVM films were always a hit because of his love and knowledge of music."

"The fact that he was forced to discontinue his studies in class 9 to help his father in the store did not stop him from educating himself. A mathematical genius, mental calculations were his speciality. To improve his English, he read the editorials in 'The Hindu' and looked up the words he did not understand in the dictionary. He was soon fluent in the language. An extremely hardworking person, he never put off anything to be done later believing that there was no time like the present. He lived by the code that one should take risks in life but should ensure that life itself is not a risk!"

An outspoken person, Meiyappan was never two-faced. He would speak plainly and never hesitated to give praise where it was deserved. He always readily accepted suggestions and corrections provided they were worthwhile.

A self-made man, AVM did not like anything being wasted. When he was ill in hospital the last words he ever spoke were to his son Saravanan telling him to switch off the light in the toilet as electricity should not be wasted.

He once told his sons that the three letters AVM represented not merely his name but the years of toil, hardwork and his life's achievements.

Click here to view movie stills

R Rangaraj

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Published on July 25th, 2006

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